When a cardholder dies, credit cards aren’t automatically canceled. This can cause some problems if you’re not careful. If you’re the personal representative or executor of someone’s estate, here’s what you can do.
When a loved one dies, the task of notifying financial institutions and closing accounts sometimes gets pushed aside. But leaving credit card accounts open can cause problems later on. You should start by freezing the credit of a deceased family member. You’ll also need to gather some information and follow up.
If you are the personal representative or executor of someone’s estate, here are the steps you should take:
Contact credit bureaus to freeze credit
Contact the big three credit bureaus Equifax, Experian and TransUnion to request a credit freeze, which will prevent anyone accessing the credit file of your loved one.
Freezing the credit files prevents criminals from opening new credit cards or other accounts using the name and Social Security number of the deceased.
“You do not want to deal with identity theft of a loved one several years after they have passed away,” says Stephen Lesavich of Lesavich High-Tech Law Group.
Access accounts and request documents
One might assume with today’s technology, banks would know when someone dies, but that’s not the case.
“Survivors must take action quickly, to avoid legal or financial problems,” says Lesavich. “Notification of death to the credit card issuer is not automatic, and credit cards are not automatically canceled upon a death.”
The sooner you start organizing the person’s financial accounts, the better, says Robert Siciliano, CEO of identity theft website Safr.me.
As a court-certified representative or surviving spouse, you can request a copy of the deceased’s credit report, which lists all the credit accounts issued in the dead person’s name. “Go through all of the person’s various cabinets, drawers and folders, seeking out invoices and statements,” says Siciliano.
You will also need to monitor incoming mail for six months to a year after the death.
Some financial institutions will ask for death certificates, so gather copies, including for the three credit bureaus. Some states require both long-form and short-form death certificates.
Contact other users on the account
If the credit card was jointly owned, the co-owner assumes full ownership.
“If the account is a joint account, there should be no interruption to their use of the card,” says Betty Riess, Bank of America spokeswoman. “If the co-owner has any questions about the status, it’s always a good idea to reach out to the card issuer.”
It’s also a good idea, before canceling a credit card account, to contact any authorized users named on the account and remind them not to use their cards. Since the account owner who was responsible for payments is now gone, any use of the account can get them into trouble.
Avoid using the credit card
Using a credit card that belongs solely to someone who has died is fraud – even if the person using the card was an authorized user or had permission to use the card before the cardholder died. “A user may be liable for the new charges and old debt in this situation,” Lesavich says.
If someone is an authorized user on a card belonging to a spouse who dies, in most states, the survivor is not liable for the debt. In community property states, though, creditors may pursue a surviving spouse. If the amount is significant and you’re not sure if the surviving spouse is required to pay, contact an estate attorney in your state.
Make sure to shred all credit cards associated with the account and tell authorized users to do the same. If you think someone else has the account numbers for a credit card, tell them the account cannot be used.
Notify the card issuer
If the deceased family member was sole owner of the account, contact the issuer and have the account canceled as soon as possible. All credit card accounts should be closed immediately after the primary cardholder dies. Act quickly to avoid interest and finance charges.
Identity thieves troll the obituaries and online records to learn about recent deaths, so they can steal from accounts or create new ones. Banks may send out late notices and add extra fees when the next payment is missed.
Call the credit card issuer and ask for the department for deceased accounts, or locate it on the issuer’s website. Ask that the account be closed and where you should send documentation.
“Ask the credit card issuer if there are any recurring charges on the card, and request those recurring charges be canceled,” says Lesavich. If interest or finance charges have been applied to the account, ask that those charges be waived because of the death.
A phone call should flag the account. However, to officially close the account, it’s smart to follow up in writing. Include the deceased person’s name, date of birth, date of death, Social Security number, address and credit card account number, as well as all your own contact information and your relationship to the deceased.
Since credit card issuers handle the death of a cardholder in different ways, it’s important to confirm the necessary steps with each issuer separately. Some issuers, such as Discover, verify the death on their own and the account is cancelled upon notification.
Bank of America, on the other hand, will route you to their estate services department, and assign you a case number and specialist to review a copy of the death certificate you provide. The bank may request additional documents, such as change of address or internal bank forms, depending on state law. On approval of these documents, account(s) may be opened and funds transferred to your account or disbursed per your instructions. You may need to open an estate account.
Settle accounts through the estate
Family members aren’t responsible for a loved one’s credit card debt, except in the case of a joint account.
If the deceased was sole owner of the account and had a balance on their credit card, it will need to be resolved as part of the probate process. The creditor should petition the estate for any remaining balance. If there aren’t enough assets in the estate to cover the debt, creditors may not get paid, because credit card debt is unsecured debt.
Before you pay anything, ask the credit card company to submit a proof of claim for the estate, says John Caleb Tabler of Lau & Associates in Pennsylvania.
“Make sure [any card debt] gets paid out of the assets of the estate if there are any,” says Tabler. “Keep in mind, if you waste estate assets as a personal representative, misuse them, or, in the case of Pennsylvania, disburse money from the estate before there’s a formal accounting, as the personal representative you can be found liable for debts owed.”
As the personal representative, avoid paying bills for the deceased yourself, and never commingle your money with that of the estate. You have no obligation to personally pay any debt of the deceased unless you were already a responsible party on the account.
“Any protection a personal representative may have individually goes away if they enter into an agreement to pay the debt of the deceased,” Tabler says.
Taking care of credit card accounts is just part of the many responsibilities of a personal representative or executor of someone’s estate, but it’s an important one. By safeguarding the estate and deceased person’s name from waste and fraud, you are helping to make sure all assets are used the way they are intended, and that future trauma is minimized as much as possible.